Pastor McConnell: I will meet with Muslim leader who reported me to police
Pastor James McConnell has said he is willing to meet the Muslim leader who reported him to police over his controversial comments about Islam.
The firebrand preacher said that if he received a private invitation he would visit the Belfast Islamic Centre to talk to Dr Raied Al-Wazzan.
"Even though his actions led to my prosecution, I am prepared to do the Christian thing and meet him. I am not a man for holding grudges and I wish Dr Al-Wazzan well," Pastor McConnell said.
"But I would tell him that there was no call for him to report me to the PSNI and that he needed to start respecting the right to freedom of speech and freedom of worship."
A fortnight ago, Belfast Magistrates Court found the 78-year-old preacher not guilty of making "grossly offensive" remarks about Islam.
He had branded the religion as "heathen" and "Satanic" in a sermon in his Belfast Metropolitan Tabernacle church in May 2014.
Dr Al-Wazzan, who was later himself to make controversial comments praising the rule of Islamic State in Iraq, lodged a complaint about the pastor's "offensive and disgusting" remarks with the PSNI four days after the sermon.
Following Pastor McConnell's acquittal, the Muslim leader said he had no regrets about his involvement in the case.
He told the BBC that he "would do it again if somebody was stereotyping the Muslim community".
Dr Al-Wazzan said he hoped the Christian preacher had learned from his experience and "would choose his words carefully" in future.
He added that he would be prepared to meet the pastor to discuss the issues involved.
Pastor McConnell last night told the Belfast Telegraph: "If Dr Al-Wazzan privately asks me to meet him, rather than making such an invitation through the media, I would agree without a moment's hesitation.
"I'd be prepared to visit the Belfast Islamic Centre and to shake his hand. There are many things I'd like to say to him face-to-face but I wouldn't want our meeting to be a media gimmick. If it takes place, it should happen in private, away from the cameras."
The pastor said he would tell the Muslim leader that he had to respect freedom of speech: "I would tell him he never should have gone running to the police over what I said and that he shouldn't be so touchy in future.
"I would say to him that he has to learn to take criticism of his religion.
"He has to acknowledge that I am as free to condemn Islam as Muslim clerics are to condemn Christianity." Pastor McConnell expressed disappointment that Dr Al-Wazzan had not been present in court for the case.
"His actions started the whole prosecution process. I had to appear in court seven times and I think that Dr Al-Wazzan was a coward for not going to court once," he said. "I know the prosecution didn't call him as a witness but he was free to attend the trial as a member of the public and to listen to proceedings. Given how important the case was to him, you'd think he would at least have done that."
Last year Dr Al-Wazzan was embroiled in controversy when he said that Islamic State had made his home city of Mosul in Iraq "the most peaceful city in the world".
Pastor McConnell said that had he wanted to retaliate, he could have called for Dr Al-Wazzan's prosecution for those comments.
"But I didn't lodge a complaint with the police or anybody else because everybody has a right to freedom of speech," he said.
"As strongly as I disagreed with what he said, I acknowledged his right to say it. I bear no ill-will to Dr Al-Wazzan. I have no bad feeling or hate in my heart for him."
Pastor McConnell was charged under the 2003 Communications Act with "sending, or causing to be sent, by means of a public electronic communications network, a message or other matter that was grossly offensive".
Finding him not guilty, Judge Liam McNally said: "The courts need to be very careful not to criminalise speech which, however contemptible, is no more than offensive.
"It is not the task of the criminal law to censor offensive utterances."
The pastor said that while he still remained strongly opposed to Sharia law, he regretted if his words had hurt Muslims.
"I didn't mean to do that. I wouldn't hurt a hair on their head. I am against their theology, not them as individuals," he said.